GM Question or Two
Barbara Sumner Burstyn
November 10, 2003
overseas for two-thirds of my time, I'm furiously proud of being a Kiwi. Anyone
who travels will tell you: being a New Zealander confers a certain status, a
goodwill that comes attached to the name of our country.
last week, with the lifting of the moratorium on GM, despite extensive protest
and overflowing evidence that the jury is still out on the safety and
sustainability of GM, I became embarrassed. It's as if all the clean, green
marketing, the image New Zealand has worked so hard to cultivate around the world,
is no more than a thin veil of lies.
now, less than a week later, the first application for a genetically modified
crop has already been heard. The spokesman on GM for Federated Farmers, which
backed the application by the state-owned Crop and Food Research, said the
Roundup-ready onion crop had the potential to benefit producers, consumers and
here's a salient tale for New Zealand farmers and GM supporters to consider.
Mississippi, soybean farmer Homan McFarling is being sued by Monsanto. As
reported in the New York Times, the farmer bought genetically modified soybean
seeds not because he was a big fan of GM but because effective herbicides
needed to manage conventional seeds are, oddly, no longer commonly available.
here's his big crime: like farmers from the dawn of time, McFarling saved his
seeds from one season to replant the next. Caught red-handed by Monsanto,
admittedly with the help of everything from helicopters to sophisticated
surveillance techniques, the company offered to cut him a deal for infringing
their patent. Pay US$135,000 ($220,000) and it would forget how he damaged its intellectual
McFarling decided to fight for the right to sustainably farm his property. He
lost and Monsanto was awarded US$750,000 ($1.2 million). Although he is appealing,
legal experts say he's likely to lose again, given that Monsanto has a Supreme
Court-protected right to patent life forms, not to mention 75 employees in its
legal department and an annual legal budget of US$10 million ($16 million).
course, some might say McFarling is his own worse enemy. After all, he did sign
a contract when he bought the seed. But then, according to a US judicial
opinion, the terms printed on the reverse are not subject to negotiation and
are so specialized that even an attorney may not understand the terms of its
don't sign the contract, you say. But guess what? Even if farmers don't, they
are still liable.
that's bad? Then get this: if you are a GM-free farm in North America and your
neighbour's GM crop contaminates yours (even from germination by pollen carried
by insects, birds or the wind), you can still be sued for patent infringement.
one case (just one of many), Monsanto sued and bankrupted Percy Schmeiser, an
organic farmer in Canada, for infringing the monopoly right of their patent.
wait, there's more. In North America, if your crop is contaminated by patented
GM seed, even without your knowledge, you must forfeit the right to your own
harvest. And, of course, because your land is now GM-contaminated, it is
unsuitable for non-GM crops and your organic livelihood is ruined.
what about the New Zealand situation? At the hearing last week the head
scientist behind our GM future, Dr Colin Eady, said the details of who would
own the intellectual property rights to seed production or the question of
ownership of contaminated crops had not been worked out.
Here's the foundation of GM farming and details haven't been worked out yet?
since I couldn't make it to the hearing (only a handful of the 1900 submitters
were invited to speak), here's my question. Are you really that naive Dr Eady
or are you simply being disingenuous?
another question. Are you, the public, feeling nervous about our Government
proceeding not only with lifting the moratorium, against overwhelming public
opinion, but also protecting the identity of a secret corporate partner?
now that we know that partner is Seminis, the world's largest seed company, are
you surprised that its biggest marketing success was to quietly lock up huge
chunks of the vegetable seed supply before they went GM (in 2000 it provided
the seeds for 40 per cent of all vegetables sold in the US)?
does the knowledge that Seminis has so far eliminated more than 2000 seed
varieties (seed diversity that will be lost forever) in favour of its own GM
hybrids leave you slack-jawed?
do you get the feeling that the moratorium itself was no more than lip service,
that the agreement to make New Zealand a GM playground was a backroom deal,
cooked up some time ago?
you feeling a creep up your spine about the ownership of essential elements in
the food chain, so that soon every step of your life will have a corporate
even putting aside your concerns about GM frankenfood and the motivations of
the corporations that are creating it, aren't you amazed that Dr Eady says he
does not know who will own the crops that grow from GM seeds? If not, you
the penultimate word should go to Percy Schmeiser: "If I would go to St
Louis [the home of Monsanto] and contaminate their plots - destroy what they
have worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown
exactly. And that's just the point. When public opinion is ignored and all
avenues for lawful protest have been exhausted, what other options are there?
would say direct action is all that is left. Henry David Thoreau would say
"dissent without resistance is consent". President George W. Bush
would say, "Bring it on".
Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between
Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column
for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz),
and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her
website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/.